Mam, lighting a candle on her daughter’s grave, 12/24/12

Here is what I posted in this space one year ago tonight. It’s worth re-reading, and thinking about the meaning of this time:

For some years now, it has been a Christmas Eve tradition in my family for my mother and my sister Ruthie to go to the Starhill Cemetery, the country graveyard near our family home, and light a candle on each grave. A time-consuming task, but a labor of love  and communal memory (because they lit a candle on each and every grave, not just the graves of family members) by Mama and Ruthie. I’ve never seen this with my own eyes, because it has been many years since I’ve been here on Christmas Eve, but I could easily imagine how beautiful it was, given the deep night blanketing the graves so far from the lights of town.

This year, Ruthie lies in the graveyard, having died from cancer in September. My mother was too sad to honor the dead this Christmas Eve, given that her own daughter was now among them. The tradition was to end.

My mother and father stopped by our house in town on the way to evening services at the Methodist Church. Earlier in the day, they told me that they were planning to join us at a family Christmas Eve get-together at my cousin’s house, but when they stopped by late this afternoon, I could tell that they were just too down. They were probably going to go home after church and go to bed.

While they were at services, I drove out to their place in the country to fetch some Santa presents from Daddy’s barn. When I turned onto their road, the sight of a couple hundred pinpricks of light in the graveyard startled me. It looked like fireflies hovering close to the ground. Mama had lit the candles after all! I thought. I wonder why she didn’t tell me? I was going to call her and congratulate her, but I knew she was in church, and couldn’t take the call.

An hour or so later, I was at the party at my cousin’s house, when my mobile phone rang. It was my mother, sobbing. “Rod,” she cried, “somebody put the candles out tonight at the cemetery. On the way home from church, we turned off on the road coming home, and there they were.” She could hardly speak through her tears.

“You’ve got to find out who did this for us,” she said. “Ruthie and I … every year … now somebody … .” She sobbed, and searched for words.

“Whoever it is, they will never know what this meant to me. They will never, ever know.”

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang again. It was my mother, and she was still crying.

“It was Susan Harvey Wymore,” she said. “She had called your daddy a few days ago and asked if I needed help lighting the candles this year. He told her that I wasn’t going to do it this year, because it was too hard, so soon after Ruthie’s death. So she did it for me, and didn’t say a word. Oh God, Rod, she will never know what this means. She will never understand how much this touched me.” And she cried some more.

The Harvey kids grew up around Starhill, though I didn’t really know them, because they were so much older. But Lord, the healing mercy for my mother in that Susan Harvey, going through the cemetery after dark, blessing each grave with a candle, like Mama and Ruthie did for years, to keep the tradition alive. I told everybody at the party about it. A cousin of mine heard this and said, “Isn’t that something. You might not know this, but I believe that Susan buried twins.”

So she knows what it’s like to lose a child — in her case, if my cousin remembers correctly, children. The candles Susan lit in the graveyard tonight were not the only lights that she made shine in the darkness, nor the most important. Ah, this town, these people.

O night, O night divine, O night when Christ was born…

Merry Christmas to you all.

You should have seen the candlelight in the Starhill Cemetery tonight. Like fireflies.

This is the second Christmas without Ruthie, and because of that, today was really hard on my Dad. He was very low today, but decided for the first time in years to join the larger Dreher clan at their Christmas Eve gathering in Starhill. We had gumbo and fireworks, and a grand time. He was surprised, I think, by how much he enjoyed himself, being with everybody tonight. Before we went outside for the fireworks, we gathered around the piano to sing a few Christmas carols. Eliza, the little girl of my cousins Daniel and Amy, stood next to Paw, and took his hand while they sang. That’s them here:

Eliza hasn’t seen much of him in her life, so he’s pretty much a stranger. Amy marveled at this. “She doesn’t do this with people,” she said.

We all went out in the dark to watch the fireworks, and Eliza climbed up in Paw’s lap as he sat on a lawn chair. They watched the show together, in the same yard where Paw and Eliza’s late grandfather, Uncle Murphy, played as boys during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, Eliza and her parents and baby brother live in the same house where Paw and her grandfather grew up. Eliza stood at the end and told Paw it was time to go back inside to decorate cookies for Santa.

“You come on,” she said. “We not start without you.”

Later, when I took my father home, he gave me a hug and, with tears in his eyes, told me how much it had meant to him to be there tonight with all the family. “I’m so glad you’re home,” he said. Me too.